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Fun Activities to Promote Executive Function Skills in a Time of Social Distancing

Fun Activities to Promote Executive Function Skills in a Time of Social Distancing

With much of the nation experiencing widespread school closures, a lot of teachers and parents alike are looking for creative ideas to have a little fun (and to incorporate some learning too). Building executive function (EF) skills can help children become better students. In fact, EF skills are the fundamentals for learning. EF skills consist of working memory, impulse control, and cognitive flexibility. This crisis is certainly calling on our ability to think flexibly and manage our impulses. So, why not take the opportunity to build these skills intentionally? Did you know that there are a lot of different games and activities that don’t feel like learning but actually incorporate executive function skills? Let’s look at five examples that are perfect for students (and even your own children) who are currently at home.

Simple Card Games

Slapjack and crazy eights support practice in impulse control and working memory. Think of the anticipation of waiting for the next card to be flipped and the tension in your arm as you wait to slap the jack cards. How many times did you slap the wrong card? How hard was it to wait? Talk about those physical feelings as students play. Have students or your own child take notice of what it feels like to wait in that tension. Ask if there are other times that they feel that way. You can even add an element of flexible thinking to the game by changing the rules. Slap the twos, or add a wild 10 card to the mix. Using a deck of cards for a memory game is another great idea.

Board Games

I used Clue to help my son learn how to analyze data and use the information he gained to form a hypothesis. As a teacher, you can apply this same concept by creating an online challenge, giving out clues to solve a mystery by the end of the week. Ask students to track the information, and use it to decide “whodunit.”

Whether you are at home with children of your own or looking for suggestions to give to parents of students, here are some board games that utilize EF skills:

  • Sorry!, Trouble, and Parcheesi support impulse control and flexible thinking.
  • Chess and checkers are great for improving working memory, cognitive flexibility, and impulse control.
  • Jenga can improve flexible thinking and impulse control.

Activities to Encourage Movement

With all the energy built up from being in a limited space, activities that get students moving are also good ways to build EF skills. Try encouraging students to learn a new dance online like one set to “Old Town Road,” the “The Git Up,”” or any of the popular dances going viral on TikTok currently. They can post a video to their favorite social channel and challenge other students, friends, or siblings. These dances work on memory skills and impulse control. They are also friendly for all ages. Teachers can build relationships (and likely get a few laughs) by posting themselves doing the dance and asking their students to learn it as well.

If you are like me, you might have grown up playing hand-clapping games like “Miss Mary Mack.” These are great games for building EF skills as well. Teachers can also create a lesson for parents that sends younger students on a “treasure hunt” through their house, having them find things that are based on a particular theme and then explain why they grouped them the way they did.

Quiet, Independent Fun

Thriving together in small spaces also means strategic use of quieter activities. For those moments, mazes and puzzles are great for flexible thinking. Reading a book is one of the best ways to improve attention and memory skills. While reading, students work on focus, holding information in their mind and understanding the perspective of others. Having a book discussion afterward is also a great way to get learners talking about feelings and choices.


Finally, as we all work to cope with staying indoors so much, try teaching some mindfulness through deep breathing or yoga poses. Slowing down the body, noticing whether it is revving like a race car or purring like a kitten, not only helps build skills in impulse control, but it also lays the groundwork for the jump into the social-emotional learning skill of self-awareness. There are some excellent apps out there to work with.

While these games may seem like just a way to pass time, there is some intentional, executive function skill building happening too. With these ideas as your starting point, don’t be afraid to get creative! If you’re interested in more information about social-emotional learning, particularly in the midst of this current crisis, watch our webinar on Using SEL Strategies to Navigate in Times of Crisis.

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Jen Perry

Jen Perry currently serves as the Director, Whole Learning and SEL at Edmentum. Jen joined Edmentum as the Learning Designer for Social-Emotional Learning after 30+ years of work with youth in educational and community settings. As a teacher, administrator, and trainer, her passion has been to help educators develop an understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and build trauma-informed responses and systems. This work has included supporting youth, administrators, and schools in understanding behavior and implementing transformational change through strength-based approaches.